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Dealing with the warming signs

The note-writer's tone was accusatory. Why didn't I come out and deal with the real cause of this strange and, to fans of snow sports, cheerless winter: global warming? His note, in a way, included me in a band of conspirators who knew the truth but were either ignoring it or, for some dark reason, suppressing what we know.

Certainly, all we really know for sure is that week rolls into week, now into midwinter, and the Northeast is still warmer and drier than usual.

And for those of us who revel in outdoor sports played in snow, it is a bleak scene, and I'm not just talking about skiers. Downhill skiers and riders can find ribbons of manmade snow to make turns on, and by late week, the north country should have a mantle of real white natural snow all over. Most areas in Maine and New Hampshire had up to 10 inches fall Tuesday.

But amusements that rely on plenty of snowfall and winter weather throughout the countryside -- from snowmobiling to dogsledding to Nordic skiing and ice fishing -- have so far missed more than two months of the climate they depend on every year. And as bad as it may be for the participants in these sports, imagine those who eke out their living as suppliers and servicers of such sports.

"Every so often we have a year like this," says Evelyn McAllister, head of the chamber of commerce in Rangeley, Maine -- one of the snowmobile capitals in the Northeast. "But this has really been bad."

Not only did the months pass with no snow, but the warm air prevented the lake country from freezing, which is also part of the fun with snowmobiles. The Rangeley lakes are prime country for that reason. Where else do you get to ride a snow sled 70 miles per hour in a straight flat line without the possibility of trees jumping in the way?

"We've had bad open winters before," said Mike Kennedy, a rider from Laconia, N.H., "but I've been around [Lake Winnipesaukee] for a lot of years, and I can't remember anything like this going on so long."

This is a condition that even those whose only relationship with winter is trying to stay out of it, sense to be true. For the flip side of a bad snow sports winter is that, well, it's been downright comfortable. Those of us with yearly heating oil budgets are running hugely in the black right about now.

So what does it all mean, if anything other than one of nature's regular irregularities? Vermont meteorologist Jim Roemer, a.k.a. Dr. Weather, on whom many ski resorts -- among businesses dependent on climate -- rely for long-range weather forecasts -- was surprised and then angered when a meteorologist interviewed on the NBC Evening News last week declared that the warm winter was due entirely to El Nino and not global warming.

"Surely it's partly El Nino," said Roemer, referring to the warming effect from Pacific Ocean currents. "But to flatly deny that global warming is also part of the cause is irresponsible and reckless. And for some reason, the weather has become political."

Of the 30 to 35 El Nino winters in the last century, Roemer points out, most occurred in the last 20 years, largely as a result of the oceans warming steadily. It's a matter of fact, not politics, that the atmospheric CO{-2} content has risen to 383 parts per million and is growing exponentially.

"Sunlight on CO{-2} in the atmosphere warms the planet," he says. "Everyone knows that, but there are people who want to deny it. Is the fact that Europe is the warmest it's been in 1,300 years due to El Nino?" he said. "Of course not."

Roemer and others who think like him do not mean to imply that winter as we know it in the East is about to end. Weather is cyclical.

"You may not notice any change in the next year or five years," he says. "And we will have cold, snowy winters in the years ahead. But instead of one or two bad winters, over the next 15 years, seven or eight will be bad [for winter lovers], they will not last as long, and there will be more El Nino winters, which are warmer."

Of course, the evidence of global warming mounts everywhere, from the shrinking polar ice caps, the first retreat of snow in memory from the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, and all the entire body of evidence set forth by Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth."

The snow cover is often not good in the European ski areas, but one Austrian coach on the World Cup tour said not only had he -- and his skiing family -- never seen so many races in Europe postponed for lack of snow, but that for the first time in any Austrian's memory, rock appeared on the Hintertux Glacier where ski racers train in summer. In fact, some glacial ski resorts in France and Switzerland could not operate last summer.

In the short term, however, Roemer gives reason to winter aficionados to hope. While the season at most ski resorts has been one of snowmaking gains followed by warm, rainy retreats, relief is in sight.

"Next week," he says, "the pattern will change. We won't go all winter like this, and there'll be some lake-effect snow because of the warmer temperatures. There will be some real snow and we should have at least six weeks of good winter weather."

With Martin Luther King weekend ahead, leading into the February vacation week, to the service industry that supplies wintertime fun, the change in fortunes can't come soon enough.

Tony Chamberlain can be reached at

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